Pacific Islands Forum unity talks underway in Fiji

Fiji PM Voreqe Bainimarama, Cook Islands PM, Mark Brown, and former Cook Islands PM and current Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General, Henry Puna at the opening of the Cook Islands Embassy in Suva. Photo: Fiji government.

Fiji today hosts the second day of talks aimed at keeping the Pacific Islands Forum membership intact, with the leaders of Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and Cook Islands in the country for meetings with their Fijian counterpart.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr, FSM President David Panuelo and Marshall Islands Minister, John Silk are in Suva for the talks convened by Forum Chair, Fiji. Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama is leading the talks. Kiribati and Nauru have not sent representatives from their capitals to the meeting, although both have diplomatic missions in Fiji.

Last night the leaders attended the opening of Cook Islands High Commission in Suva, where Prime Minister Bainimarama told guests that the new mission was “a victory for unity in the Pacific. But we have much larger mission to unite our region ahead of us,” he continued in a clear reference to the Forum’s delicate state. “If we can bridge our most recent differences in keeping with our Pacific way, I’m confident that we will be a stronger family for it and I appreciate Cook Islands commitment to keeping our Pacific family together,” he said.

Last February (2021), Micronesian members of the PIF gave notice of their intent to withdraw from the grouping over the appointment of former Cook Islands Prime Minister, Henry Puna as PIF Secretary-General, rather than their candidate, Marshall Islands Ambassador Gerard Zakios.

Forum Leaders subsequently established a ‘political dialogue mechanism’ as an avenue to discuss the bloc’s concern. Virtual meetings have followed with the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit. But reaching a resolution has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has continued to close borders and hamper face-to-face meetings. Indeed, the fact that the SG’s selection occurred in virtual meetings has been partly blamed for the schism, as it meant the usual informal and in-person caucusing and consensus building could not occur between leaders. However the tensions have also raised more fundamental questions about the way the Forum operates, particularly in the context of generational change amongst Pacific Islands leaders.

In February of this year, the Micronesian members temporarily suspended their withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum, which as President Panuelo said at the time, “now allows us the time we need to progress and finalise our ongoing discussions.”

That temporary suspension ends this month, hence the meeting in Suva this week. The matter cannot wait until the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting, which is now scheduled for July 12-14 in Fiji.

There is still some divergence between members on the way forward. For example, in March, RMI President Kabua wrote an impassioned plea for reconciliation within the Forum in a letter to his Nauruan counterpart. Without Nauru and Kiribati represented at the highest levels in the room today, reaching a consensus and maintaining the Forum’s membership will require considerable negotiation skills on the part of all involved.